Thursday, June 27, 2013

More on IP -- why the Ub Iwerks, Gardner Fox, and Jack Kirby estates aren't worth billions

Earlier, Joseph argued that, as with taxes, the level of intellectual property protection should be set to optimize general welfare:
In both cases the extremes of the policy are as bad as an absence of any policy.  If you set taxes to ~100% then you'd end up with no economy (or a purely shadow economy).  That would be bad.  If you set intellectual property rights to too high of a standard then you have endless rent-seeking on the basis of a vague idea that was never properly developed.
This is not to say that property rights are unimportant.  But it does illustrate that the way we define and reward these rights is a socially determined decision.  The consequences of such decisions reflect the society in which the decision is made and not some sort of natural evidence of merit. 
But let's not move away from the merit point just yet. Don't the people who come up with inventions or artistic works deserve compensation from those who profit off of those creations? Put in those terms, this would seem to make the case for strong IP laws, but before we start equating broad patents and eternal copyrights with some sort of a creator-centric paradise, remember that most of the benefits of the laws do not go to the people who actually came up with the ideas.

Consider the case of Nathan Myhrvold's favorite innovator, Chris Crawford, who essentially tried to hold much of the internet hostage based on what turned out to be someone else's ideas, or, for a more representative example, look at Ub Iwerks who co-created Mickey Mouse and was the man behind many of Disney Studio's early innovations. Along similar lines, comic creators such as Julius Schwartz, Gardner Fox and Jack Kirby. These three (and there are limitless other comparable cases) played a significant role in the creation of properties that generated millions of dollars in their lifetimes and are worth tens of billions now, but none of these men received more than a sliver of that money.

Pretty much anywhere you look in the IP world, you find this disparity between, to coin a phrase, the makers and the takers. Fats Waller, Gene L. Coon, Bruce Geller, too many others to count, have created works that generated tremendous amounts of money that never made it to them or to their estates. While there are certainly people who have gotten rich off of their creations, the kind of laws we're talking about now with copyrights going back ninety-five years and patents that cover sending email from your phone, have nothing to do with helping creators.

These laws are about keeping the powerful powerful with the added benefit of making it more difficult for competitors to get a foothold.

1 comment:

  1. mark, I think that this gets to the heart of another issue. In discussions about things like copyrights, there are a lot of appeals to abstract principles. But we have to deal with the system that we have and if it is not actually rewarding creators then it is serving no noticeable purpose at all.